When her father is hanged for shooting his wife and her lover, half-breed Pearl Chavez goes to live with distant relatives in Texas. Welcomed by Laura Belle and her elder lawyer son Jesse, she meets with hostility from the ranch-owner himself, wheelchair-bound Senator Jackson McCanles, and with lustful interest from womanising, unruly younger son Lewt. Almost at once, already existing family tensions are exacerbated by her presence and the way she is physically drawn to Lewt.
Pearl Chaves (Jennifer Jones) can't prevent her father, Scott Chaves, (Herbert Marshall) to get wind of her mother (Tilly Losch)'s unfaithfulness with a lover (Sidney Blackmer). Scott gets so angry that he shoots both the mother and the lover. He's sentenced to death in court. After the sentence has been carried out, Pearl goes to live with her cousins, the McCanleses.Jesse, the younger brother (Joseph Cotten), doesn't recognise her, because he expected a Southern lady and she is a half-caste woman who dresses as a gypsy. Jesse's just returned home after finishing his Law studies up north. The older brother, Lewton "Lewt" McCanles (Gregory Peck), is a true Western cowboy. He feels attracted to Pearl. Laura Belle (Lillian Gish) is the female cousin, a weak woman who hasn't been happy in her marriage to the Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore).Jesse offers to teach Pearl, but he doesn't carry it out. He feels attracted to her as well. Lewt dares Pearl to ride an unsaddled horse. She tries, but she can't control the horse, who jumps the fence and runs away until she falls to the ground. There, Lewt helps her to stand up. Another day, Lewt follows Pearl to a pool where she is swimming naked. She spends hours in the water because she doesn't want him to see her. They both arrive late for dinner home.The next day, Laura Belle calls for a preacher (Walter Huston), who orders Pearl to fight sin, sexual pleasure, and says that purity is much more harder for beautiful women. He gives her a medallion to help her.Senator, although he is wheelchair-bound, and Jesse, go to the limits of the ranch to fight the railway workers. The railway is going to cross the ranch, and Senator doesn't want it to do so. At the last moment, Jesse changes sides. Senator decides not to fight the Texas army, because he had fought under the Texas flag they are carrying. However, he won't forgive Jesse his disobedience.That night, Lewt returns from a trip and only Pearl and the talkative slave Vashti (Butterfly McQueen) are there. He enters Pearl's room and kisses her. They make love. When he's about to leave, Jesse arrives. On seeing them he feels so disappointed that he says he won't ever forgive her, although he used to love her.Pearl feels so angry with him, that he decides to enter a relationship with Lewt. They make love many times, and he promises to announce their marriage in a town's party. However, Senator talks Lewt out of it. Lewt tells Pearl he only wants to have fun with her. Pearl leaves the party, and she meets the new ranch worker Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford). He can't dance, but they make it happen somehow. Soon, they get engaged. However, the night before the wedding Lewt kills Sam, because Pearl is his girlfriend until he gets tired of her.Lewt has to live as a runaway, blowing up trains, because of his murder. Laura Belle is very sick and she dies after making peace with his husband. Jesse returns home with his new fiancée, Helen Langford (Joan Tetzel) and her father (Otto Kruger). Lewt visits Pearl at night, to make love to her, and she is responsive to him. The sheriff knocks her door, but she doesn't betray him.Lewt and Jesse have a duel to win Pearl. Lewt wins, as usual, but Jesse survives. Lewt sends word to Pearl for her to see him before he slips across into Mexico. Pearl realizes that Lewt will one day try again to kill Jesse. She meets him in the mountains and shoots Lewt and is then shot by Lewt. Lewt, as he's dying, professes his love for Pearl. Pearl, also shot, struggles to get to the dying Lewt and they die in each other's arms.